Kevin Labanc

Sharks takeaways: What we learned in unimpressive 6-3 loss vs. Coyotes

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Sharks takeaways: What we learned in unimpressive 6-3 loss vs. Coyotes

BOX SCORE

Coming off a brief -- albeit impressive -- homestand, the Sharks looked to carry their momentum into a critical three-game road trip, beginning Tuesday night against the Arizona Coyotes at Gila River Arena. Instead, that momentum has been brought to a halt, as San Jose fell 6-3 against its divisional foes.

The Sharks dug themselves a big hole, as Arizona's Phil Kessel provided his team with a 2-0 advantage five minutes into the second period with his second goal of the night. San Jose then battled back in short order, tying the game up within the next five minutes of play, but it would be mostly downhill from there.

Aaron Dell did his best in net to give the Sharks a chance, and the score likely would have been much worse if not for some of his big saves, particularly in the early going.

Here are three takeaways from the battle in the desert/

Unnecessary penalties

The Sharks no longer are the most penalized team in the NHL, but they're still shooting themselves in the foot too often with some of the penalties they are taking.

You don't have to look any further than Stefan Noesen's hooking penalty early in the second period to get the point. On the complete opposite end line from San Jose's own goal, the fourth-liner took a terrible hooking penalty, and it cost the Sharks big time. On the Arizona's resulting power play, San Jose's penalty-kill unit was atypically caught out of position, allowing Kessel to slide an easy goal past Dell to increase the Desert Dogs' lead to 2-0. 

The Sharks have constantly relied on their top-ranked penalty kill  this season, and it has been a tremendous ace in the hole for the team. But if they keep giving the opposition unnecessary advantages, it won't matter how great it is.

Dell is the guy

If it wasn't clear before, it should be by now. Aaron Dell is the Sharks' No. 1 goalie, and he has run away with the job.

Tuesday night was Dell's fourth straight start, and he has started all but one of San Jose's games since the turn of the calendar. He hadn't allowed more than two goals against in any of those starts, and while he allowed four to the Coyotes -- Arizona scored two on an empty net -- it's not as if he had a legitimate chance on any of them. In fact, Dell came up with several big saves in the opening period, without which the game likely would have gotten out of hand long before San Jose had a chance to stage a comeback attempt.

He came up with another huge save shortly after Kessel's second goal, which actually initiated a Sharks' rush up the ice and culminated in Timo Meier's game-tying goal midway through the second period. Without any of those saves, San Jose doesn't have a reason to pull Dell at the end of the game.

And without Dell's recent emergence, the Sharks' goaltending situation would be looking a lot more dire at the moment.

Power play cashes in again

After the Coyotes increased their lead to 4-2 just over eight minutes into the third period, San Jose could have folded and packed it in, knowing a tough game in Denver was next on the schedule. But to the Sharks' credit, they kept battling and gave themselves a chance to get a point or two.

San Jose kept the pressure on, and Meier eventually drew a tripping penalty with just under three minutes remaining in the contest. Less than a minute later, Evander Kane scored off a nice pass from Kevin Labanc to pull the Sharks within 4-3.

They never got any closer, but Kane's power-play marker continued a positive trend for the Sharks. With Kane's goal, the San Jose is now 5-for-13 with the man-advantage over the last five games, with at least one power-play goal in all but one of those contests. Additionally, it was Kane's 10th power-play goal of the season, moving him into a tie with the Washington Capitals' Alexander Ovechkin for the third-most in the NHL.

Surging Sharks star Joe Thornton leads way in win vs. Blue Jackets

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Surging Sharks star Joe Thornton leads way in win vs. Blue Jackets

The NHL's holiday break seems to have done some good for veteran Sharks center Joe Thornton. 

Thornton's game-winning assist on Kevin Labanc's goal in San Jose's 3-2 victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Saturday afternoon was his fifth point in as many games since Dec. 27, and his fourth assist during that span. The 39-year-old's helper Saturday was the latest example of the vision that propelled Thornton to the top seven on the NHL's all-time assist list. 

"Marcus [Sorensen] just [made] a little fake pass, and Jumbo with that vision that he has and ability to get that pass through, and I just one-timed it in the net," Labanc told Sharks broadcasters Randy Hahn and Bret Hedican after the win. "It was a great overall play, and it was a huge goal for us on the road here."

Labanc, Sorensen and Thornton formed the Sharks' third line for much of last season, and the trio reunited in Thursday's win over the Pittsburgh Penguins after sporadically playing together through the first 41 games of the season. Saturday -- or, game No. 43 -- arguably was the trio's best performance. 

With Labanc, Sorensen and Thornton on the ice together in 10:36 of 5-on-5 play, the Sharks out-attempted the Blue Jackets 14-3, outshot them 9-2 and out-chanced them 7-1 Saturday, according to Natural Stat Trick. Columbus didn't attempt a single high-danger chance when all three players were on the ice. 

"Jumbo was making plays today, and even 'Bancer -- he had some looks at the net and he did some good things defensively," Sharks interim coach Bob Boughner said of his third line. "It was nice to see him get paid off at the end."

Thornton's improved production has come along with improved finishing. The Sharks have controlled a lower share of shot attempts, shots and chances with Thornton on the ice in their last five games than the first 38, but San Jose has scored on 11.76 percent of its 5-on-5 shots with Thornton on the ice since Dec. 27 compared to 7.86 percent prior. 

Better goaltending has helped, too. Goaltender Aaron Dell stopped 21 of 23 shots Saturday, winning his second straight start posting a .900 save percentage in a season-high fourth straight game. Thornton's on-ice save percentage in 5-on-5 situations over the last five games (.931) is far better than the first 38 of the season (.871).

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The Sharks' secondary scoring has dried up this season, and San Jose entered Saturday ranked 26th in the NHL in goals-for. Thornton probably can't keep up a point-per-game pace for the rest of the season, but a scoring bounce for the veteran -- and dominant puck-possession performances like Saturday's -- would really help the desperate-for-depth Sharks. 

The bearded center's resurgence alone won't be enough to push San Jose up the standings, as seven points and four teams stand between the Sharks and the Western Conference's final wild-card spot. But, Thornton's improvement has certainly helped the Sharks win three of their first five games since the holiday break.

Sharks' struggles feel familiar on second rough East Coast road trip

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Sharks' struggles feel familiar on second rough East Coast road trip

At the start of the Sharks' recent road trip earlier this week, the team felt like they were in pretty good shape. Despite losing to the Hurricanes in a shootout Thursday evening, San Jose played so well that they appeared primed to pick up a few wins.

But after being outscored 12-2 in back-to-back games against the Lightning on Saturday (7-1) and then the Panthers on Sunday (5-1), the Sharks aren't looking like the team that went 11-4-0 in the month of November. In fact, they're looking like the team that went 1-3-1 the last time they went on a long roadie out East.

Are the Sharks' struggles on this second long road trip just a coincidence, or is it history repeating itself?

"I think every trip is different, you're at different points," coach Peter DeBoer said to the media after the Sharks' loss to the Panthers. "My disappointment tonight was a little like last night. I think they scored on their first shot or their first couple of shots and then you're chasing the game right off of the bat. It's tough on the road to do that."

San Jose looked for a moment like they could trade in their bad luck during Sunday's game when Kevin Labanc scored a power-play goal in the first period to cut Florida's two-goal lead in half. But thanks to a lopsided special teams battle and Sergei Bobrovsky outplaying Martin Jones, the Sharks were handed yet another loss.

"I thought we hung in there and kept fighting, but it wasn't enough," DeBoer said. "Their goalie was better. Their special teams were better tonight than ours."

It's a disappointing trend to see from a Sharks team that was starting to turn things around after a solid November. Even after a disappointing loss to the Washington Capitals before the road trip, San Jose was able to put on quite the performance in Carolina -- despite only getting one point -- and had momentum in their favor. In both losses that ensued, that fight was hard to come by.

"I think we're a little too relaxed right now," Sharks winger Evander Kane admitted. "A couple of games where we got off to bad starts and weren't able to fight back. We didn't have much fight after we got down. That's probably the most disappointing part."

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The Sharks might be leaving the Sunshine State behind, but their road trip isn't over just yet. They have one more stop before they can return home -- a Tuesday night meeting against the Predators in Nashville -- and one more chance to turn their luck on the road around. Even though the Predators haven't been playing well either, their home barn poses challenges for visiting teams. Given how the Sharks have played over the last couple of road games, a win won't be easy.

The Sharks have no choice but to buckle down and grind for a win.

"It sucks, but you just have to keep working to get out of this slump," Kevin Labanc said. "And make sure that we're getting out of this hole for ourselves."